Saffron Walden 

Private Boarding Schools for Females c.1791-1861



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The Saffron Walden Historical Journal was launched in 2001 by the Saffron Walden Historical Society and all issues to date have been kept in print. It is now proposed to discontinue reprints of the early issues and instead provide the articles online, via the Recorders of Uttlesford website. Articles are reproduced by kind permission of the authors and remain the copyright of the Journal. Their publication on this website does not constitute permission to copy into any other medium, without the express permission of the Editor, who can be contacted through this website. Permission will normally be granted for non-commercial usage. The articles may be used for educational and research purposes by bona fide researchers. They can be found either under the place to which they relate or, if covering a wider area, under the Uttlesford history section. Further articles will be added twice a year, but only several years after original publication. Those wishing to contact the authors can do so via the editor. Please note that in most cases the original illustrations are not included but can be seen by consulting the original journals held at Saffron Walden Type Town Library.

Jacqueline Cooper, Editor

Article from Saffron Walden Historical Journal No 1 (2001)

‘Establishments for Young Ladies’: Private Boarding Schools for Females c.1791-1861,
with emphasis on Saffron Walden Ladies’ Schools

by Fiona Bengtsen

There were some boarding schools for girls, prior to this period, in the seventeenth century, but these were few and far between, and catered primarily for the upper-classes. However, when restrictions on dissenters keeping a school were removed in 1779, many private schools sprang up to cater for the needs of those who were not only dissatisfied with the old-fashioned, grammar schools for their sons, but also wanted education for their girls. This relaxing of conditions imposed on school proprietors unfortunately resulted in a lowering of standards in many cases, but it did mean that hitherto unacceptable subjects, like study of the English language, could be included in the curriculum. The early Ladies’ Establishments, or Academies, which were initially for the daughters of wealthy parents, were soon copied by the middle-classes, although even these cheaper schools were still both class and gender-based. They turned out girls who conformed to the accepted middle-class ideals of womanhood, which was perceived to be fine ladies. To achieve this they provided mostly accomplishments, like dancing, music and French, and instilled a superior attitude into their pupils. The purpose of educating middle-class girls was to ensure that they attracted a wealthy suitor. It did not equip the girls to provide for themselves. This would have disastrous consequences by the mid 1800s.

The ladies’ boarding schools discussed here, which proliferated throughout the period in question, were based upon the London and Brighton finishing-school models. Country boarding schools for girls emulated the London model in their choice of accomplishments, but also appear to have instilled a strict moral code into their pupils, which was not evident in the original models. Many middle-class, female schools were headed by dissenters or Anglican clergymen’s daughters and wives. Non-conformists had strong views on education and appear to have considerably influenced the style of education in many of these private boarding schools.

In the Saffron Walden Census of 1811, there appears to be a small, girls’ private boarding school in the High Street run by ‘Miss Holton, Schoolmistress’. This very early census, shows 7 females and 2 female lodgers, or possibly servants, at that address. The location ties in with the rent books of 1810 which show that a ‘Kent, Holton & Beard’ paid rental on 37 High Street. Throughout the period from 1811 to 1861/3 there appears to have been a ladies’ boarding school located in the High Street, with only occasional breaks in continuity. Whether this school was located in the same building, or not, is open to speculation. Even if there was a male ‘head of household’, most female schools were operated by women only. Generally, girls 11-15 were boarded together in convent-like conditions in an entirely female household, to keep them chaste for marriage. Contemporary critics of these boarding schools regarded them as incompetent and ephemeral.Undoubtedly, some schools deserved this description, but many have proved to be extremely long-lived, although the standard of education they offered is often unknown.

By 1823 two private schools are listed in Pigot’s Directory for Saffron Walden. ‘Miss Houlton’ (sic), still operated from the High Street, and had been joined by Miss Spicer, in Church Street. According to the Chelmsford Chronicle of 1836, the Misses Mark succeeded Miss Spicer at Church Street, and advised that they hoped, ‘by the most unremitting attention to the education, morals, health and general comfort of those pupils entrusted to their care….. to reopen on 19th January’. It must be remembered that these schools were private enterprises and when necessary were sold as businesses. The ‘Misses Mark’, were Anne and Jane Mark who were still running the school in 1838, according to White’s Directory.At this time the High Street school was operated by Susannah Harris. Six other schoolmistresses are shown, but it is not stated whether the other schools listed were ladies’ boarding or day schools. These early trade directories are useful for research purposes, but are not infallible. Entries were frequently copied from previous editions without investigation, but the most important factor was monetary. No payment, no entry. Schools may have existed, but could not always afford the entry fee to advertise.

The 1841 census throws a little more light on these Saffron Walden schools.Susannah Harris is shown as 35 years old, and unmarried, but has no pupils living in, even though she is listed as a boarding and day school in 1838.Frances Archer, aged 25 years, and her sister Catherine, aged 15, have started a small school in Almshouse Lane and have three pupils, two aged 10 and one aged 5. However, the 1851 census gives more detail on the composition of the schools. Catherine Taylor, aged 26, in Church Street, has 9 female pupils, aged 6 to 15. These children had been baptised in Essex, Cambridge and Suffolk. By using nominal record linkage, it would appear that most of the girls came from farming families within the immediate area.Two pupils, Fanny Symonds, and Sarah, her sister or possibly cousin, come from a large family in Balsham, Cambridge where their father, John, is listed as ‘Farmer of Dottrel Hall.’ Middle-class farmers’ daughters accounted for themajority of pupils at country boarding schools. According to Hobsbawn,the widest definition of ‘middle-class’ during this period was, ‘those who kept domestic servants.’ As these children’s families would have had access to horse-drawn carriages, transport may not have been the problem that it was for many other girls attending boarding school. Often the success of a school was dependent upon it being situated close to a coaching route, or turnpike, as it was deemed unseemly for ladies to ride astride a horse, and riding side-saddle was for exercise purposes.

The 1861 census is even more revealing. It shows Harriet Leonard as'Headof Household,' aged 32 years and unmarried. She calls herself 'Principal of Ladies' Establishment' and stems from Sible Hedingham. Her sister Julia, also unmarried and 30 years old, lives with her, as does her mother, Mercy Leonard, a widow aged 64 years. It was common for private schools to employ members of the principal's family to supplement either the teaching, or serving staff. Many of these women would have been unemployable if they had not been occupied by their family. The school employs three live-in governesses; one from and one from Guernsey, which suggests that French was taught, and one from London. The teachers ages range from 21 to 40 years, and all are unmarried. There are eleven girls living in aged 11 to 16, baptised in London, Essex, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. The catchment area is thus about an 8 miles radius from Saffron Walden.Although two children were baptised in London, it is not certain that they were still living there. It will be noted that all the women of marriageable age in this school are single. This is a significant fact. By 1850 the gap between males and females in the population was widening, and it became apparent that not every woman would marry. The dilemma for middle-class females was that it was socially unacceptable for them to earn their keep, but economic circumstances demanded it. As teaching was seen as an extension of child-rearing this was one of the more acceptable occupations open to women. These women teachers were totally untrained. Either their skills were gleaned from parents and relatives, or even a governess if they had been educated at home, but in any case their poor teaching merely perpetuated inadequate instruction to the next generation of potential teachers. It needed a radical change in social attitude to break the cycle.

The 1845 Parliamentary Returns for Saffron Walden, refer to a school on the Common run by ‘Elizabeth & Henrietta Miller at The Priory.’ This large, Elizabethan building, facing Walden Common, had two storeys plus attics, cellar and garden, which would have been ideal accommodation for boarding and teaching girls. An undated prospectus exists for The Priory, conducted by Miss Erswell, which describes the school as, an ‘Establishment for Young Ladies who will receive a superior and thorough education.’ No indication is given of the basic subjects taught, although Miss Erswell’s school was still operating in 1908, so she may well have taught more than the usual standard subjects, which were normally only English and Needlework. For this ‘superior… education’ a charge of 20 guineas per annum is made for under 10 year-olds, and 24 guineas for over 10 years. Music, French, Drawing and Laundry cost pupils an extra 3 guineas each; a total of 36 guineas per annum, or 39 guineas if music was given by a Master. Miss Erswell appears to have waived the one guinea entrance fee which was an almost universal extra charge for administration. Additional subjects sometimes taught in these schools were arithmetic, dancing and occasionally geography. History was almost never taught, although about 1830 it began to appear in advertisements, mostly as an optional extra. Apart from the use of globes, science does not appear to have featured in girls’ curricula, largely one suspects because it was considered unladylike, but also because a shortage existed of school manuals on scientific subjects.

A good income would be required to pay for private, boarding school education. The Report of the Schools Inquiry Commission in 1868 suggested that parents would earn between £150 to £600 a year. There appears to be a high incidence in these schools, of family members being boarded together.To keep just two sisters in a boarding school such as the Priory would cost a minimum of 48 guineas per annum, even without essentials like laundry. At the top end of the scale, including all extras, fees would amount to almost 80 guineas. This takes no account of other incidentals like cost of a fire in the room, butter at tea time, writing materials, etc…Miss Erswell’s girls were requested to bring with them a ‘fork, spoon, serviettes and towels.’ This was common practice in most schools, probably to save school owners the expense of provision, but also to teach the girls social, dining skills, like using a knife and fork in polite company. Weekly boarders and day pupils were also accepted at the Priory, so that all requirements were covered. In order to keep their schools open, the women who ran them needed to maximise their profits by accommodating all possible permutations.

From the 1790s onward, the number of ladies’ boarding schools increased steadily, and due to the growing number of unattached women throughout the 19th century, there were plenty of females available as both teachers and pupils. Despite all the criticisms levelled against them, women teachers did run these schools successfully for many years. Their secret was that they were supplying a demand. Misguided as it may have been, these schools delivered the kind of education demanded by their clients, otherwise they would not have survived as long as they did.


J.W. Adamson, A Short History of Education, ( Cambridge, 1992) p.194-6

Census of Saffron Walden, 1811, 1841, 1851, 1861

Rent books of Saffron Walden High Street 1810-23.

Josephine Kamm, Hope Deferred, (1965) p.137

Pigot’s Directory 1823 Saffron Walden

Chelmsford Chronicle 1826

White’s Directory 1838, Saffron Walden.

Census of Saffron Walden, 1851.

Balsham, Cambridge,Parish Baptismal Registers 1840-44

Kelly’s Directory of Cambridgeshire, Balsham 1847

E.J. Hobsbawn, Industry and Empire from 1750 to present day, (1968), p.156

D.Davidoff & C. Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and women of the English middle classes, 1780-1850, (1987), p.285-6

Parliamentary Returns, Saffron Walden (1845)

Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, Essex, Vol. I., Saffron Walden, (1916)

Kelly’s Directory 1908.

Prospectus, The Priory School, Saffron Walden (undated)

Dorothy Gardiner, English Girlhood at School, ( Oxford 1929) p.426.

Schools Inquiry Commission, VolIX, pp.826-9 quoted in P. Gosden, How they were taught, ( Oxford 1969)

School bills various, Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire


For further information see Fiona Bengtsen, An Inquiry into the Private Education of Females in Essex, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, c. 1791-1861 (unpub. Thesis, Cambridge University, 1999). A copy can be found in Saffron Walden Town Library.

© Saffron Walden Historical Society 2001